Second Timothy 2:12 has caused confusion for many people as it seems to cast a shadow on the security of the believer, but does it mean that someone who denies Christ will be denied entrance into the kingdom? Many hold that this is indeed the warning of the passage. Treatment in many commentaries, however, is vague regardless of the author’s view, and few state plainly what this means. Homer A. Kent effectively sidesteps the issue when he writes, “‘if we shall deny him in the future (and some may),’ the consequence is clear.” But he never mentions what the consequence is.1 And Ryrie merely says, “The third couplet, ‘If we deny Him, He also will deny us,’ reiterates the Lord’s word in Matthew 10:33. Judas did this.” He moves quickly to the last part of the quote and affirms the believer’s security.2 But to Ryrie’s credit, he does point out this passage means loss of rewards in the Ryrie Study Bible footnote. Ralph Earle obfuscates the issue by simply saying, “This is a serious warning. We cannot reject Christ without being rejected ourselves.”3 Whether he thinks this refers to believers who go astray is unclear.
Those who hold to this view point out that this verse must be seen in context with verse 11 as it is part of what many take to be a hymn or saying of the early church.4 Some see this quotation or hymn as dealing with two contrasts. They see the first half of the quote as positive with the idea being that the believer who endures will reign with Christ, and the second half of the quote as negative with the idea being that the believer may not endure and will then be rejected by Christ. And thus Hiebert writes, “By contrast, the second pair asserts the solemn warning that denial and unfaithfulness just as surely separates men from Christ. ‘If we deny him’ points to an awful possibility.”5 If this view is taken, the phrase in verse 12, “He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself” is taken to mean that Christ must be true to His just and holy character and must judge one who denies Him.6 As Hendriksen says, “for faithfulness on his part means carrying out his threats (Matt. 10:33) as well as his promises (Matt. 10:32)!”7
There is another way to look at the passage that would resolve the apparent conflict with other passages that promise the security of the believer. The key is in the context and in the literary structure of the saying.
First to be considered is the context. In the first part of this chapter, Paul is urging Timothy to endure for the cause of Christ. He gives Timothy the example of the soldier, who works hard to please his master and the farmer, who works for the reward of the harvest, etc. He then quotes a hymn in verses 11-12 that evidently is doctrinally correct to give Timothy further motivation for enduring. What then is the motivation? We must take the structure into account to determine this.
The second thing to consider is the literary structure of the quote. It is quite common in Hebrew literature to see things arranged around a chiasm. It is possibly the case in this passage. And thus we have the following:
a. For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him.
b. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him;
b.1 If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
a.1 If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself.
Line “a” deals with the issue of eternal life. It is clear that if one has died with Christ, eternal life is his. This first statement is in the aorist which taken in context with the next two tenses, which are present and future, must point to a past event in Paul’s and Timothy’s lives. The death must therefore refer to their positional death with Christ.
Line “b” deals with their present situation. This is in the present tense which points to their present circumstances. They were enduring suffering. If they continued to endure, they would reign with Christ. Reigning is different than living eternally and refers to receipt of rewards and a superior quality of eternal life. This concept can be supported by passages like 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Pet. 1:11; 2 Cor. 5:9-10; Rom. 14:10. This then is the motivation: eternal rewards, not eternal life.
Line “b1 ” uses the future tense and thus looks to a future possibility in which Paul and Timothy might, in their human weakness, deny Christ. If that were to happen, Christ would certainly deny them something. Here is where the debate centers. But because line “b1” is paired with and contrasted to line “b” in the chiasm, the thing denied must be rewards and the superior quality of life.
Line “a1 ” returns to the topic of eternal life and to the assurance that this eternal life is theirs. Thus Paul says that Christ will remain faithful even though we do not endure.
It must be noted that lines “b” and “b1 ” deal with the same issue and lines “a” and “a1” deal with a different issue. To do as Hiebert does and include “b1” and “a1” as being more closely related than “b” and “b1” is to misunderstand Paul’s logic and the logic of the Hebrew mind.
Furthermore, it is characteristic of the chiasm that the center holds the main idea, and so it is in this pericope which is concerning rewards. Thus, understanding the use of the chiastic structure, and taking into consideration the context of giving Timothy further motivation for endurance, helps the reader understand that Paul is explaining that eternal rewards can be earned. And consequently our eternal position is secure, it is the eternal rewards which are at stake.